Speak out about county government: Charter Commission schedules public hearings

HILO — What’s your opinion about four-year council terms? How about a 1 percent disaster fund? The power of council members to discipline one of their own? Should the Police Commission and Fire Commission be authorized to discipline their respective chiefs?

These questions and more are being considered for the Nov. 3, 2020, general election ballot. And now it’s the public’s turn.

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Members of the public will have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to sound off on changes being contemplated for the county’s fundamental government document — or even to suggest a few changes of their own — as the Charter Commission takes to the road over the next two weeks for a series of public hearings.

The commission has approved 11 charter amendments on first reading, but the public isn’t limited to those amendments when it addresses the commission during public hearings in Puna, Ka‘u, Kona, Kohala, Hamakua and Hilo.

“This is the opportunity for the public to let us know what they think about their charter,” said Charter Commission Chairman Douglass Shipman Adams. “This is the county charter, the people’s charter. We are their representatives and we want to hear from them.”

The successful measures go to the County Council, which can’t veto or change the amendments, but can offer alternatives to be placed on the ballot along with the Charter Commission measures. The Charter Commission also plans to discuss additional measures at its next regular meeting in April.

Probably the most controversial issue the commission has handled this year was a push to reduce the 2 percent land fund, devoted to the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission for land acquisition. That was defeated after dozens of members of the public came out in opposition in earlier meetings.

Mayor Harry Kim and Council Chairman Aaron Chung had favored the reduction of the PONC fund from mandatory levels, saying it would give the county flexibility to buy land when money is available while freeing up some of the fund during emergencies or when budgets are tight.

An amendment (CA-9) still moving forward will allow money in the PONC fund to be used to pay for dedicated staff for the program. The charter currently doesn’t allow the money, which comes from a 2 percent earmark off the top of property tax revenues, to be used for salaries and wages.

Debbie Hecht, campaign coordinator for citizen efforts to get the land fund in the charter, has pushed for dedicated staff. She and other supporters point to the balances in the PONC 2 percent acquisition and 0.25 percent maintenance funds as symptomatic of a lack of attention by county administration.

As of Feb. 28, the acquisition fund, which receives about $6 million annually, had a balance of $19.9 million and the maintenance fund, which receives a little more than $500,000 annually, had $2.9 million. Only 14 of 180 proposed lands have been purchased over the past 14 years, advocates said.

“We believe the reason why the money is being stockpiled is that there is nobody on board to pay attention, to work to administer the program,” Hecht said.

Creating a fund similar to the PONC fund that would be devoted to spending on disasters and emergencies is the object of CA-17. The measure would devote 1 percent of property taxes every year until and as long as the fund reaches $20 million.

“Where else can you have hurricane, tsunami, earthquake, lava flow and the other things like wildfires, that you have got to respond to?” Charter Commissioner Bobby Jean Leithead Todd said at a Feb. 8 initial reading of the proposal.

Finance Director Deanna Sako worried that if budget limitations continue to be added to the charter, there will be very little money left for expenses required for other priorities and mandated by state laws.

“I am more against setting a precedent that everything will be allocated out in our budget and there will be nothing left for the things we also have to do,” Sako said.

Extending council terms from two to four years (CA-8) is another controversial measure that’s passed first reading. Hawaii County Council members currently are limited to four two-year terms before they have to sit out at least a term. The charter amendment would change that to two four-year terms.

Proponents said the learning curve for being a council member is so great, it takes the first two years just to get a good grasp of the issues. Council members are just getting their feet on the ground when it’s time to go out and campaign, they said.

Opponents point out that members of the state and U.S. House have two-year terms. Council members may be more responsive to their constituents and the requirements of their districts if they know they’ll soon be up for re-election, opponents said.

Another council-related issue (CA-12) would allow the County Council to suspend without pay for up to a month a council member who behaves in a “disorderly or contemptuous manner” in its presence or fails to attend three or more regularly scheduled council meetings without being excused from attendance by the council chairman.

Current council rules allow the council to censure members for repeated absences, but Leithead Todd’s amendment would add teeth to it.

Former Council Chairwoman Valerie Poindexter asked the commission last year to consider the issue, after former Puna Councilwoman Jen Ruggles declined to vote on or sponsor legislative actions because of her concerns about committing war crimes against the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Ruggles missed three months of meetings while continuing to collect her $70,000 annual pay.

Proposals that have passed First Reading:

CA- 1 Draft 3; Relating to Rephrasing District Residency Language

A housekeeping measure, changing “One member shall be elected from each of nine districts,” to “There shall be nine council districts, each of which shall be represented by a resident elected from that district,” for the County Council and a variety of boards and commissions.

CA-2 Draft 2; Relating to Holding an Equal Amount of Council Meetings in East and West Hawaii

This would require the County Council to hold an equal number of meetings in East and West Hawaii. Currently, the charter requires the council to meet at least twice monthly, with at least one of those meetings each quarter in North or South Kona. The council has been voluntarily holding one of its twice-monthly meetings in Kona; this would require it.

CA-4 Draft 2; Relating to Powers, Duties, and Functions of the Director of Research and Development

Clarifies the role of the Department of Research and Development and expands its duties to include “environmental, cultural, community, and economics sustainability and resilience” issues, rather than the current issues of “economic, social and cultural” proposals.

CA-5; Relating to Changing Name of the Legislative Auditor to County Auditor

Changes the name of the legislative auditor to county auditor.

CA-6; Relating to Disciplinary Actions for the Police Chief and Fire Chief

Allows the Police Commission to discipline the police chief and the Fire Commission to discipline the fire chief in addition to their current authority to hire and fire them.

CA-8; Relating to Terms of Office for Council Members

Changes the terms for County Council members from two to four years. Allows two four-year terms instead of four two-year terms and provides for the transition of council members’ terms.

CA-9 Draft 3; Relating to Staff to Administer the Public Access, Open Space, and Natural Resources Preservation Fund and Maintenance Fund

Allows money from the 2 percent land acquisition fund to be spent for salaries, wages and benefits of dedicated staff for the program.

CA- 12; Relating to Disciplinary Actions for Council Members

Would allow the County Council, by a two-thirds vote, to suspend a council member without pay if he or she behaves in a “disorderly or contemptuous manner” in its presence or fails to attend three or more regularly scheduled council meetings without being excused from attendance by the council chairman.

CA- 14; Relating to Updating Language for the Department of Research and Development

Changes the five years’ experience requirement for the director of Information Technology from “electronic data processing, telecommunications” to “information technology, communications” and updates other language in the director’s responsibilities.

CA- 15; Relating to Powers, Duties, and Functions of the Director of Information Technology

Removes the county prosecuting attorney and police departments from the computer systems overseen by the IT director.

CA- 17; Relating to Establishing a Disaster and Emergency Fund

Requires the county devote 1 percent of property taxes every year for a disaster and emergency fund until the fund reaches $20 million.

The money could be used for disaster response, repairs, purchase of property to mitigate future disasters and paying operational expenses of the county if there’s a drastic drop in tax revenues because of loss of property valuations, among other specified uses.

Public hearing schedule (all hearings begin at 5 p.m.)

Monday, March 25 Old Kohala Courthouse

Friday, March 29 Naalehu Community Center

Monday, April 1 Pahoa Community Center

Tuesday, April 2 Honokaa Complex, Multi-Purpose Room

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Wednesday, April 3 West Hawaii Civic Center, Council Chambers

Thursday, April 4, Hilo Council Chambers

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